The Skeptical Muslim vs. The Peaceful Imam
I’d like to consider myself an open-minded guy. I follow a number of different people spanning across several different political and religious affiliations. I grew up as a Messianic “Jew” and converted to Orthodox Judaism with my parents. I studied to be a rabbi for several years, but now would consider myself squarely apathetic to religion or questions of God in general.
However, I’m still interested in the beliefs within other religions because they effect culture. At some point, I am influenced, for good or for bad, by religious ideas. Religious conflict, which seemed to be decreasing for a while following the fall of most western monarchies and spread of democracy, looks poised to increase in the future.
The reason it appears that religious conflicts are going to increase in the future is because of the spread of Islam in the west. While Jewish and Christian societies in recent history are far more tolerant of other ideas, even ideas they they would consider immoral (as long as they are non-violent), Islamic societies and communities appear far less tolerant. Jews and Christians have not always been so tolerant, yet they have adapted to changing political and social conditions and evolved into non-violent belief systems. I have wondered what specific beliefs or religious principles caused Jews and Christians to turn non-violent, whereas Islam has largely remained violent.
Of course, many people would probably find issue with my premise. America, a Christan-majority country, has engaged in empire-building and war for decades. Israel, the only Jewish-majority country, has been engaged in ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians for decades, they say.
Let’s assume both are true, for the sake of argument. Still, Europe was in flames for 100 years as Catholics and Protestants waged war and religious conversion was part of the process of western colonization. Jews used violence against both England and the US in the past in order to create a Jewish nation and protect it against what they saw as imperialist powers. These days, Protestants don’t fear moving around Europe, except in the places where the Muslim population is high. No matter what religion you follow, you are safe from violent religious discrimination most of the time in most places in the US.
Even Muslims find western societies quite pleasant places to live. Western secular culture creates a safe environment for Muslims, even in Christian or Jewish majority nations. Yet, while Christians can visit Israel without fear and Jews find safe-haven in nearly any city in the US, they cannot say the same about Muslim-majority nations like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, etc. Muslim nations are not open and tolerant of those with different belief systems. They enforce strict conformity to their cultures and beliefs with violence.
No matter what you say about the history of Christianity or Judaism, you cannot reasonably say that Christians or Jews are just as violent, or more so, than Muslims.
In fact, Muslims themselves will agree. Imam Tawhidi says that the greatest threat to Muslims is other Muslims. Muslims in Europe, he says, don’t like the wave of immigrants that have come to Europe in recent years. They are moving into suburban areas to escape the oppression of their more violent brothers in the cities.
So why is it that so many Muslims use violence to enforce their religious beliefs, whereas Christians and Jews are far more tolerant of each other as well as Muslims?
I don’t know, largely because I have very little knowledge of Islam. But after watching a debate between a reformist Muslim and an orthodox Muslim conducted about six months ago, I feel like I am closer to understanding.
Islam vs. Modernity
The topic of the debate between Muslim reformer Imam Tawhidi (self-described former terrorist intellectual) and the orthodox Muslim named Daniel Haqiqatjou (for typing convenience, I will simply refer to him as Daniel) is about Islam’s challenges with modernity. While the debate itself gets quite messy and I don’t feel like I got a clear definition of modernity that the two could agree on, I found Daniel’s arguments particularly educational. Since he represents the clear mainstream of Muslim orthodoxy, whereas Tawhidi represents a minority opinion, Daniel’s ideas deserve close examination by people like myself who have very little knowledge or exposure to mainstream Islamic thought.
The question is this: What do mainstream Muslims think of modernity?
Daniel does not believe that Muslims are better off in modern societies. He argues that modernity isolates people from their families and communities, atomizing them and weakening their religious observance. Observance of Islamic law gives way to western capitalist culture. He goes so far as to say that the steady push of western culture through American business expansion into Muslim countries is a form of violence. Yes, establishing McDonalds and Starbucks in Muslim nations is violence in the orthodox view. He says that violent Islamic groups are a response to western intervention in the Middle East.
It’s not surprising that he is critical of western cultures. What is surprising is that the arguments made by Daniel actually closely resemble the arguments of another group that disagrees with western imperialism: violent postmodernist far-left liberals like Antifa.
Islam and Postmodernism
What has puzzled many western conservatives is this: Why do postmodernist far-leftists and Muslims seem to find so much common ground? They have clear disagreements when it comes to social issues that both sides consider very important, like gay and women’s rights. How do they manage to form coalitions when orthodox Muslims believe that gay people should be killed and that women shouldn’t expose even their ankles in public?
The reason, according Imam Tawhidi in his recent interview with Candace Owens, is that liberal politicians want Muslim votes. According to Tawhidi, Muslims overwhelmingly vote liberal because they know liberal politicians will give them a platform.
While I believe that his answer is plausible, I don’t believe it is complete. Mainstream Islam is violently opposed to many of the key far-left liberal issues. Even if we assume that a certain portion of liberals are willing to pursue power even at the expense of their social ideals, how do we explain such a wide-spread tolerance to the religion that is perhaps the most intolerant of liberalism?
My theory is this: Liberals and Muslims have traditionally been allies on the issue of western intervention in the Middle East. Intersectional feminism is open to the argument that Daniel makes: Muslims are oppressed. The violence we see is a response to western imperialism, and anyway, it’s not nearly as bad as western violence.
Yet, as Tawhidi says, even Muslims don’t like the current wave of new-comers. The early Muslim immigrants are, and have been, much different from these new-comers. The group that poses the greatest threat to Muslims is other Muslims, he says. While liberals are most acquainted with the non-violent, more conforming group of Muslims (let’s call them moderates) that came earlier in history, this new wave of Muslims reflects a more observant, pure version of Muslim orthodoxy that liberals haven’t known about. This new group intimidates the older group and takes advantage of the relationship the older group had with liberals.
Of course, for economic and social reasons, the early immigrants were likely people who were also most open to change. People who leave their mother culture are usually dissatisfied with it in some way. They are also the ones with the money and education necessary to be the first to establish a diaspora in their new host countries. Selection bias played a big role in the population and religious observance of the first comers.
But why were the “old” Muslims open to alliances with postmodernist liberals? Postmodernists don’t believe in truth or objective reality. They don’t believe in the existence of Allah. What is it that made the old Muslims less observant of their traditions and more open to secular liberalism and postmodernism?
A goat ate my homework
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam come from similar traditions. Christianity and Islam could even been seen as reformist movements of Judaism. You would think that such a tradition would have made them open to their own reformist movements, yet the Catholic/Protestant and Shia/Sunni/Tawhidi-branch divides have lead to countless wars and lost lives. The reformers themselves became the establishment and rejected any possibility of reformation.
But, that leaves them a problem: They were originally reformers, so they don’t really have strong ground on which to argue against modern reformists like Tawhidi. You can call him a heretic, but Christians and Muslims alike come from a tradition of heresy.
With orthodox Judaism, however, that is not the case. They have their own history of anti-reformist backlash, but at least they appear to have more solid grounds to take that position.
Orthodox Jews believe that the Torah, the first five and most fundamental books of the Bible, were all transmitted directly from God to a guy named Moses. Moses took many years to complete the writing. Since he wrote it, Jews have made exact copies of the original text. Even today, Jews don’t use computer generated copies of the Torah for ceremonial purposes. They write exact copies on goat-skinned scrolls, an expensive and time-consuming process. Every orthodox synagogue has a Torah scroll that is an exact copy of the one Moses wrote.
The Torah is the word of God, period. Moses was the chosen prophet used to transmit the laws he wanted the Hebrews to observe. There is no doubt either in Moses’s authority or the authenticity of the Torah in orthodox Judaism.
However, the Torah requires interpretation. It is complete, but changing human conditions require the text of the Torah to be interpreted and applied as necessary. The Torah isn’t revised or updated, only the interpretations of it are. For example, there is a law against doing work on the Sabbath. The Torah gives a few examples to define “work”. One of the examples is lighting or putting out fires. No orthodox Jew can light or put out a fire of any kind on the Sabbath. Candles are specifically lit and put out to signal the beginning and end of Sabbath.
When man learned to harness electricity, it posed a problem. The Torah doesn’t directly talk about electricity or give any direct guidance regarding electricity. Yet, orthodox Jews had to decide how to incorporate the use of electricity in Jewish society. Orthodox Jews agreed that the laws about fire and the Sabbath applied to electricity. Thus, without changing the word of God, orthodox Jews incorporated electricity into Jewish law. The Torah was preserved and its influence grew.
Thus, in orthodox Judaism, heresy isn’t necessary to update Judaism for changing conditions. The Torah doesn’t need reformation, it is perfect already. They are the chosen people and inheritors of truth. All others after them are heresies (although pagan polytheists might have something to say about that).
Islam has a very different story to tell about the Koran. In the Tawhidi debate, he and Daniel seemed to stray from the topic of Islam and modernity and began to discuss theology. According to Tawhidi, Muslims have a tradition that says while Mohammad was writing the Koran, two pages were eaten by a goat. Tawhidi pressed Daniel on the matter. At first, Daniel gave an answer that sounded like evasive lawyer-speak to this layman’s ears: Allah says that He can “abrogate” His prophecy in order to give a better, updated version. Allah can give an abridged version of the Koran, while the original, complete version exists in heaven. Tawhidi didn’t like the frankly sophistic use of language. He was quite happy when he got Daniel to finally admit that those two pages were eaten by a goat. Daniel appeared to think the difference between “abrogated by Allah” and “eaten by a goat” was not significant.
Tawhidi appears to be more used to speaking to western audiences. It was clear that he understood the significance of getting that confession from his debate opponent. Throughout the debate, Daniel used lawyer-like weasel words to avoid saying things that are unpopular to a western audience, but Tawhidi wouldn’t let go of that topic until he got that confession.
To Tawhidi, a goat eating the Koran is significant because it undermines the authority and completeness of the Koran. Islam was originally a reformation of Christianity, yet there is doubt that the process of reformation was completed. If so, then the ideas for reforming Islam can’t be ignored lightly. It’s possible that Daniel simply wanted to speak accurately about theological topics and that he is used to speaking like a lawyer, but the profound implications of the Koran being incomplete would explain the evasive posturing by Daniel.
It’s also in stark contrast to the Jewish tradition with says that the Torah is complete and perfect, only requiring interpretation to find how it applies under new conditions.
That could explain why the old Muslims—the early arrivals to Europe and the US—were open to western ideas and culture. Even according to orthodox Muslims, their traditions are not built on solid ground. They can be easily “abrogated” by Allah’s four-legged messengers. It’s easy to see how they could ally themselves with postmodernists if they don’t have confidence that their holy book tells the full story.
In contrast, while secular Jews are quite open to postmodernism, orthodox Jews are most certainly not.
Islam and Empire
So we now have a plausible argument for why liberals would ally with a group that is violently opposed to gay and women’s rights. We also have a plausible argument for why Muslims would ally with postmodernists even though the postmodernists don’t believe in Allah or even the existence of objective truth. There are at least two different groups of Muslims, one of which the liberals allied with but are being pushed out by a new, more religiously observant group. The old group was less religiously observant because of selection bias. Their own traditions are built on a shaky foundation, leaving them open to assimilation into western society.
This raises the big question: Why is this new wave of more observant, orthodox Muslims more violent?
Tawhidi argues that Islam is broken and inherently promotes violence. From the beginning, Islam has conquered. That is why he wants to reform it.
In that case, you could say that Islam is not opposed to modernity per se, but rather, peaceful coexistence. Peaceful coexistence is not possible with mainstream Islam. They do not accept any other law but Allah’s law.
Unfortunately, Daniel confirmed what Tawhidi says. Early in the debate, Tawhidi asks Daniel how Mohammad’s and Islam’s early successes improved the human condition. Daniel first begins by saying that the conquering of Arabia by Mohammad was a great success. The building of the Islamic empire had many great benefits, he says. Spiritual gains were made when people upgraded from worshiping rocks to worshiping Allah. Political gains when Arabia all became Muslim. Socially, there was greater unity when tribal barriers were broken down and the family was strengthened.
Yet, Daniel also says that the number one problem Islam faces is the imperialism of the west. He repeatedly blames the west for the Muslim world’s current state. Western imperialism is bad because it breaks up the family and takes people away from God. Again and again, western institutions, not Islamic teachings or local cultural problems, are to blame for the violence committed by observant Muslims. While Tawhidi says that Muslims need to look inward to find solutions to their problems, Daniel points outward. He says that it’s simplistic to say that the problems in the Muslim world are a result of Muslims themselves.
Daniel argues that there is no reason why violence is inherently wrong. Violence done for the right reasons is just. Police use violence to enforce the law, for example. Historically speaking, he says, violence has been the primary tool for enforcing social norms. Thus, although Islam prohibits the forced conversion of outsiders to Islam, if Muslims expand their territory, it’s perfectly reasonable and just for them to use force to enforce Sharia law in their expanded territory. In the softest of terms, Daniel admitted that Islam essentially supports a might-makes-right attitude towards other people.
His view is perfectly compatible with postmodernism. Postmodernists believe that there is no truth; there is only the will to power. All political action is a power struggle. There is no good or evil, only power. Daniel regularly uses postmodernist oppression politics arguments to defend otherwise indefensible Muslim practices such as child marriage. The western imperialists have no right to criticize Muslims because they have been guilty of the same, or far worse crimes in the past. In fact, it’s because the west has continued to attack religion that white supremacist fascism is on the rise. He also accuses Tawhidi of being an agent of western powers used to attack Islam, in a way strikingly similar to “uncle Tom” arguments common among far-left American political activists like Antifa.
As Tawhidi says, the alliance between the far-left and Muslims is about power. Orthodox Muslims justify violence if it’s used to spread truth and gain power for Allah. Postmodernists justify violence as the natural companion to power struggles. They share similar narrative devices to gain power.
One important difference between orthodox Muslims and postmodernists: Muslims believe sincerely that submission to Allah is a meaningful life (western culture has robbed people of meaning), postmodernists believe sincerely that there is absolutely no meaning in life (they are nihilistic). It’s reasonable to conclude that Muslims that use postmodernist narrative devices may actually be doing so to save the west from meaninglessness. Therein lies the rub. Violence, conquer, and empire are good and morally justifiable if you believe that you are actually saving people by killing them. All of the empire building they do is bad because it leads people down a path of isolation and nihilism. The empires we build are good because following Allah will make them happy. Thus, Daniel talks about the success of Mohammad’s conquering, but denounces western imperialism.
The Law of the Land
So, we return to the original question of this post: Why is it that so many Muslims use violence to enforce their religious beliefs, whereas Christians and Jews are far more tolerant of each other as well as Muslims?
The answer for the first part is clear: The use of violence is sanctioned by mainstream Islamic theology, and the current wave of Muslim migrants are more observant than their long-assimilated brothers. Postmodernist thought gives this new wave of Muslims an opening to spread Islam by increasing their territory.
As for the second part of the question, why are Christians and Jews more tolerant even of Muslims? In fact, why are they tolerant at all?
Well, the Christian story is well known. After Europe waged endless religious wars, a few fed up bastards got the hell out of there and started their own thing in America. The wanted peace in that new land, so they designed universal rules of engagement that allowed the warring Christian sects to coexist peacefully. European elites saw their example, thought that American “democracy” looked pretty good, and decided to adopt this new system of government for themselves. Thus, Christians got burnt out on war and gave peace a chance. Christian theology was compatible with this new form of government. There are not many laws regulating behavior in Christianity. It was easy for Christianity to embrace a new form of government. Furthermore, Protestants believe that individuals have a direct relationship with God. Thus, virtuous individual behavior is the way people can get to heaven. The freedom to choose to be good ethic replaced the good because someone will kill you otherwise ethic.
What about Jews, though? Three times they lost their homeland to invaders, and twice they fought and won it back. They were perfectly satisfied with using violence to get back their home and defend their culture. What changed?
For one, Jews have had little appetite for conquer outside of Israel. Jews, unlike Christians and Muslims, don’t have a will to spread. They are focused on their own group and its well being. They have a largely apathetic view towards the beliefs or lives of non-Jews. However, I don’t believe that tells the whole story. There is an additional ethic that they developed that allowed easy integration and coexistence within other cultures.
My theory is this: Jews first recognized their vulnerability when the Babylonian empire conquered and dispersed them. During their exile, they developed a new principle that was originally not attributed to any law in the Torah or interpretations at the time. The principle is called dina d’malkuta dina, The law of the land is the law. Under that new principle, Jews would agree to abide by the laws of the land which they lived in. Jews paid their taxes as long as the government wasn’t discriminating against the Jews. The laws of the land needed to be universal. If everybody was equal under the law, and the law didn’t infringe on certain kinds of ceremonial laws, Jews would follow it.
Typically, what that meant was that Jews would allow their host government to solve contract disputes, use eminent domain for building roads, etc. However, if the host government tried to make Jews stop worshiping God in the way Jewish law dictates, Jews were commanded to disobey the law. That happened during the story of Hannukah. Jews were commanded to not read the Torah by their conquerors. Dina d’malkuta dina didn’t apply in that situation. When soldiers would come to inspect and make sure Jews weren’t studying the Torah, they would hide their books and play with little tops called dreidels. The Babylonian empire also tried to convert the holiest site of worship into a place for pagan rituals. The Hebrews had none of that. They killed the bastards and asserted their identity as the chosen people.
The law of the land is the law was an early innovation in Jewish law that gave the Jews great flexibility and helped them survive in whatever diaspora they found themselves in. The principle allows them to coexist with other governments while maintaining their group identity and religious observance to God. Whether pagan or Catholic or Protestant, the religion of the land didn’t matter. As long as they didn’t try to take away their group identity and service to God, Jews were happy to follow whatever laws they passed as long as they were universal laws.
It could be that the development of the principle was a result of an abundance mindset. If you believe that there is an abundance of resources and that you will be able to get the resources you want and need as long as you work hard, then you are much more open hearted. You can be generous, even begrudgingly, if you don’t believe that your generosity will starve you and your family. If you read The History of Economic Thought by Murray Rothbard, you will find that the Protestant Quakers were largely responsible for the abundance mindset necessary for a capitalist society to flourish. Although it took Christians some time, they eventually developed a similar mindset. That resulted in a capitalist ethic that has now replaced the previous mindset that kept them locked in never-ending wars.
So while Christians tempered their will to conquer and spread, Jews not only lacked a culture of spreading, they also developed additional principles and laws that prevented any possible conflict with other cultures as long as they didn’t try to steal their Jewish identity from them. Jews possibly had an abundance mindset that made them open to taxation by foreign powers, and Christians may have later developed such a mindset, leading to the development of capitalist ethics.
I’m no Islamic scholar, but as far as I can tell, there does not appear to be any principle equivalent to the law of the land is the law in Islam. If so, that would explain why Islam is more violent in general than Judaism. Jews don’t particularly care who Caesar worships. They will render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. In the end, it appears that gold is all that most dictators, bands of thieves, and democratically elected governments care about. If you aren’t going to become a problem for them when they come to steal, then they will spare you your life. After all, that means they now have cash flow. Dina d’malkuta dina is a legal and cultural gift to host nations and has preserved the Jewish people everywhere they’ve gone. It is the essence of an abundance mindset.
It could be that Muslims don’t have such a mindset, preventing them for peacefully coexisting with people. Whether it is a problem with the people or with Islam, I don’t know. If I understand Daniel correctly, the will to conquer appears built in to Islamic theology, but again, I can only speculate.
To conclude, I’ve made the following arguments:
- Daniel in the debate used speech patterns and arguments similar to postmodernists.
- Islam and postmodernism have become unlikely bedfellows due to historical momentum, Islam’s shaky theological foundations, and a mutual belief in the supremacy of power.
- Mainstream Islam appears to not only lack a principle or mindset to allow Muslims to coexist with other religions; it appears to encourage violence in the service of expanding Islam. Might makes right is mainstream.
- In contrast, historical political pressure motivated Christianity and Judaism to develop principles with universal aspects that allowed them to peacefully coexist with people who had different religious ideas. Judaism may even have had a built in abundance mindset that allowed the development of such principles.
Overall, I felt that the debate educated me on the orthodox Muslim view, a rare thing for a non-Muslim such as myself. While Imam Tawhidi got emotional and appeared a bit too eager to draw some blood, Daniel’s sophist use of language almost necessitated an aggressive approach. The debate is chock-a-block with ad hominem attacks from both debaters. An irritating amount of time was spent on those attacks, in fact, which decreased the quality of the debate. However, it did give me a view into the typical kinds of attacks that Muslims make between each other. I feel like I understand the orthodox, mainstream Muslim side a bit more after watching this debate. If you want to understand Islam more, I suggest watching this debate.